Story By Laura Clark
With early morning temperatures stuck at a 32 degrees tights-only slot a bare week before 7 Sisters Trail Race, it is no wonder that the instant appearance of spring delivered an unprecedented hoard of last minute runners. Not to mention the record number of fully committed pre-registrants.
When Jeff, Jen Ferriss and I left Saratoga Springs in the unspeakably early morning, the tulips were just asserting themselves, the lilacs were invisible and the asparagus was still ostriching in the sand. When we returned, we had red and purple tulips, lilac buds and five stalks of asparagus for supper! It was that kind of a miracle day.
Fortunately, Race Director Fred Pilon, with the urging of the DCR, switched the launching pad from the Notch Visitors Center to Amherst private parking, which not only accommodated all the vehicles needed to transport 398 starters, but eliminated the cat and mouse game crossing Route 116. I am unclear if this year’s route was a bit longer or shorter since the preliminary start Apparently Google satellite had the upper hand all along. Listed for years on the WMAC Grand Tree as 12 miles, even as recently as the week before, once we crossed the finish line, the same old 12 mile course had miraculously morphed to 13. Now I know for sure I am not at all growing older and slower, it’s just that our customary routes, like runner’s flat feet, are being stretched into submission.
Firmly positioned in the porta potty line and likely to stay there for a long time, Jen and I watched in amazement as an endless line of cars waited in line to enter the parking gates. Amazingly, their line was longer than ours! When our new best friend ahead of us finally made it to the front, his wife and daughter set up the perfect photo-op by stretching an orange marking tape in front of the potty so he could break it on his way to his first place finish.
So, what is it like to tackle a single track two-way rocky, rooty lane punctuated by hand-overhand rock climbs and breathtaking views of Connecticut River’s Pioneer Valley? Rather like incoming. From my vantage at the back of the pack, it was a fun meet-and-greet opportunity, but for those in the thick of the action, it may have been different. In his blog, Scott Livingston speculates that the acknowledged rugged nature of this event has caused numbers to skyrocket. And with the exclusivity of the similarly strenuous Escarpment Trail Race, this is a valid point. Still, in spite of the difficulty, I have always felt this to be an accessible low-key affair, especially suited to a spring wakeup call. At my slower pace I have been passed more than once by hikers, and although embarrassing, I still felt joy that we were all enjoying nature on an equal footing. In truth, an expert hiker will not win the race, but mid-pack is not an impractical goal. For truth be told, the Sisters reduce most of us to extended periods of walking.
I have often thought that a fine entrepreneurial enterprise for a kid with Kool-Aid stand experience would be to set up an energy stand, charging premium prices to desperate adventurers. Even folks who should know better seem to be out of practice this early in the season. My trail friend Steve, who has done multiple Ironmans and hundred milers and really should have known better, laid out his stuff but forgot to transfer it to his car. Luckily, I had enough to spare. Along the trail, close to sweep position, my group encountered several younger, faster-looking individuals stuck on the side, pondering life in general and this race in particular. Most had stuff with them, but not the salty snacks they needed in this first warm day of spring.
My goal for this race was twofold: to beat last year’s time and not to appear to be on death’s door on the rock climb immediately following the turnaround. There were so many of us lined up on the trail, that just as in a cast of thousands road race, those toward the back could not see those in the front or even hear the signal to start. So I determined to set my watch to imaginary chip time to gain those few extra minutes that might make a difference in achieving my goal. Unfortunately, I never did figure out where the preliminary start intersected with the real start, so I never set my watch. But with a fifteen minute margin of victory it didn’t much matter.
I managed to remain chipper, even when leading my small group astray. I always get disoriented on the return to the Summit House and it doesn’t seem to matter if it is the old route or the new route. This time my companions and I took the scenic tour of the old route and discovered why we don’t go that way anymore. And at the very end, I kept searching for the turnoff to Military Road, not realizing that while we had a new preliminary lineup start, we had the old finish. I wonder how many others got confused.
I also wonder how many noticed the delightful clumps of violets on the side of the trail. Some were so huge that at first glance they reminded me of the Bull Run’s famous bluebells. And how many spotted the red columbine nestled among the basalt outcroppings of the final climb? I smiled when I saw them, for they reminded me of my Dad, who taught me that if you were in need of refreshment and broke the flowers just so, you could suck delicious nectar. Lucky for the columbine, none of the trail casualties were privy to that bit of wood lore.
I always skip the first few Grand Tree events, mostly because they require a long drive and I am still recovering from snowshoeing and its every weekend racing format. For me, the Sisters are the true harbinger of the season to come. This year, Fred did a superb job, tweaking accommodations, yet still leaving the heart and spirit of the race intact.
This article originally appeared in ATRA’s Trail Times Newsletter – Volume 18, No. 64 – summer 2013